BWW Reviews: Operatic SAMSA-MASJIEN an Intense Rendering of and Meditation on Humanity
The premiere of SAMSA-MASJIEN in the Baxter Theatre's Flipside venue last week was my second experience of the play. I previously saw the piece at the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees (KKNK) last year, where it was staged in a hangar on the grounds of the South African National Defence Force, a seemingly infinite space that suited the operatic scope of the production a little better than the relatively more intimate (though still fairly sized) alternative theatre venue at the Baxter Theatre. Nonetheless, SAMSA-MASJIEN remains an intense rendering of and meditation on aging, the nature of dementia, family and compassion.
Taking its inspiration from Franz Kafka's THE METAMORPHOSIS, Willem Anker tells in SAMSA-MASJIEN the story of a man whose physical, emotional and psychological transformation in his old age challenges everything his family has come to expect from him. Gregor Samsa, a retired teacher, and his wife, Josephine, have moved into their daughter's home. Greta struggles with the experience of seeing her father's decline, which Josephine takes in her stride as best she can. Greta's husband, Tjaart, observes everything with a sense of detached amusement.
This potentially seems like fodder for the most mundane of domestic melodramas or perhaps - at best - something that Henrik Ibsen or August Strindberg might have contrived in one of their so-called realist or naturalist dramas. What elevates SAMSA-MASJIEN beyond the mundane is its approach to Gregor's reality, with Anker using the common symptoms of dementia as the basis for what the production notes call 'a systematic becoming-insect'. Gregor sees and hears insects everywhere. He feels them on and in his body. As he becomes increasingly in tune with the natural world around him, the music of nature being more beautiful than Mozart's, there is the sense that he believes that he is becoming something else. The other characters also experience a kind of pupation in response to Gregor's interior transformation; the end results are shocking and cathartic.
Holding SAMSA-MASJIEN together is a remarkable performance by Gerben Kamper as Gregor. In a performance that exceeds his brilliant work in the role last year, it is hard to imagine Kamper's Gregor existing anywhere outside of the world of this play. It is a remarkable, fully realised and completely compelling performance. Matching Kamper every step of the way is Antoinette Kellermann, who plays Josephine. Her role, shifting in response to Kamper's, is just as complex, and she delivers nuanced work, grounded in a heart-rending truth that is perfectly magnified into the poeticism of tragedy.
Ilana Cilliers and Ludwig Binge offer capable support as Greta and Tjaart, although their two roles lack complexity in comparison with Kamper and Kellermann's. Cilliers manages to contrive a fair deal of inner conflict playing Greta despite Anker's insistence on keeping her unsympathetic in her handling of her situation, while Binge handles the slight development of his character with a kind of goofy charm. In a final scene that plays less convincingly than much of which has preceded it, Anker is particularly damning of these two characters.
In his staging of the piece, Jaco Bouwer opens the piece with Gregor sitting at a kitchen table and listening to the sounds he makes as he observes an insect scurrying on the surface. It is a moment of connection that shifts the audience's consciousness into the character's and much of what follows, both the beautiful and the grotesque, is communicated through the filter of Gregor's experience. The audience hears what he hears, dialogue mingled with noise and music (by Pierre-Henry Wicomb) in a sometimes indecipherable soundscape, which felt less well balanced here than it did at the KKNK. As he does with the beautiful grotesqueness of Gregor's transformation, Bouwer plays extensively with the continuum between the polar opposites that emerge in the piece, often discovering the presence of one pole within the other: reality in hallucination, the visceral in the intellectual, the sophomoric in the sophisticated and the hypnotic in the repulsive.
Bouwer's design of the stage also reflects the tension between dual existences, with the house in which the action transpires divided into two worlds: the stark, white, clean upper floors and the cluttered, dark, soiled cellar underneath. Towards the end of the play, a great deal of the action occurs in counterpoint in the two spaces in a masterful marriage of direction and performance.
If you can see it.
Perhaps the most difficult obstacle to negotiate in this outing of SAMSA-MASJIEN is the obscured viewing of the cellar space that its placement in the Flipside space creates for what must be a significant percentage of a full house. It is detrimental to the piece when the emphasis of the action shifts to the cellar and when the activity in the kitchen is only made meaningful by what is taking place simultaneously in the cellar. With sightlines not causing any problems when I saw the play at the SANW Loods last year, I cannot imagine that this obstruction is intentional. Without a doubt, it has everything to do with the rake of the seating and the proximity of the stage space to the audience. This piece belongs on the main stage.
There is a sense going into SAMSA-MASJIEN that the piece is one of a kind and certainly the experience of it is unique. It is an arresting piece of theatre that deals with meaty issues in a challenging and complex way, a production that never underestimates its audience. You might not like SAMSA-MASJIEN, but it is a play that cannot be dismissed or simply put out of one's memory. Long after the lights have dimmed, its invasion of your consciousness will remain.
Jaco Bouwer's award-winning SAMSA-MASJIEN, which won the ATKV-Woorveertjie for Drama, runs at the Baxter's Flipside stage until 31 January. online through Computicket (or by telephone on 0861 915 8000) as well as at any Shoprite Checkers outlet. For discounted corporate, schools or block-bookings, charities or fundraisers, contact Sharon Ward on 021 680 3962 or Carmen Kearns on 021 680 3993. There is an age restriction of 16 years.